Thrice as Nice!
UCI 3, USC 0
On Cinco de Mayo, UC Irvine’s (26-5) men’s volleyball team defeated the University of Southern California Trojans (24-6) for the third time in four 2012 contests, but Saturday night’s victory (25-22, 34-32, 26-24) at the Galen Center in Los Angeles was by far the most meaningful.
In front of the third largest crowd in NCAA men’s volleyball championship history, the Anteaters took just three sets to become the 2012 Division I men’s volleyball national champions for the third time in six seasons (2007, 2009, 2012).
For USC, it was their third runner-up finish since winning the national championship in 1990.
Senior Dan McDonnell entered the Anteaters’ huddle, knowing that his impending serve could be the last time he touched a volleyball in his collegiate career. Just after senior hitter Carson Clark drilled histeam-high 22nd kill of the evening, McDonnell stepped up to serve. Up two sets to none and 25-24 in the third set, UCI needed just one more point to become national champions.
Junior libero Will Montgomery approached McDonnell in the huddle, shouting, “This is what we live for!”
McDonnell’s palm struck the ball straight down the middle of the court, soaring toward the back line. He initially thought the ball was out, but as it landed, the line referee pointed her flag down, signaling that the ball was in bounds for the ace.
As the Trojans dropped to their knees in disbelief, McDonnell’s teammates tackled him, sharing hugs left and right, as they celebrated the culmination of a national championship season.
“It’s kind of something you dream about, like if you have that opportunity, and for it to go down how it did, it’s just a dream come true,” McDonnell said.
The Anteaters hoisted the national championship trophy following the match, as the Trojan faithful headed for the exits, and the Antourage echoed, “U-C-I! U-C-I!”
Junior setter Chris Austin had 48 set assists and 15 digs on Saturday night, both game-highs. Sophomore outside hitter Connor Hughes tallied 13 kills, including Irvine’s first six to start the match. Junior outside hitter Kevin Tillie contributed 11 kills and eight digs. All three were named to the NCAA All-Tournament team, along with Clark, who was named the NCAA Championship’s Most Outstanding Player.
“We’re obviously ecstatic. I think this is a wonderful night for our institution,” UCI coach John Speraw said, claiming that the 2012 Anteaters was the deepest team he’s had.
“We’re a young school who’s never had an opportunity to have this many fans in one building at one time to see an event like this. To have all those fans there and to be able to connect with their university, their alma mater, to have us come out on top, it’s just a tremendous night for UC Irvine.”
9,612 fans piled into the Galen Center to witness the heavyweight matchup. With the Anteaters just over an hour commute away from the national title game, and the USC Trojans playing a virtual home game, despite their No. 2 seed, the atmosphere was electric in the Galen Center and had both coaches talking afterwards.
“I don’t think there’s ever been an atmosphere like that at a national championship game,” USC coach Bill Ferguson said. “We took college volleyball to a new level tonight.”
2012 National Player of the Year Tony Ciarelli of USC was dominant with 18 kills, but so was Clark. Despite a three-set sweep, the score couldn’t do the Trojans justice.
“It was pretty clear that UCI was the better team,” Ciarelli said. “They really, really peaked at the end of the season.”
Ciarelli and Clark exchanged kills, glares and trash talk throughout the match. In the second set, they had 10 kills apiece.
“Once [Clark] got rolling, we knew there was no way to stop him,” Hughes said of his teammate. “He caught fire.”
As the second set went to deuce, Ciarelli and Clark teed off on each other, contributing 11 of the final 13 points of the set. Eventually the third set went to the second deuce of the match. It was much of the same, Ciarelli and Clark just kept swinging.
“I actually was a little frustrated with Chris [Austin] that he wasn’t setting Carson more,” Speraw said, laughing. “I told Chris, every single ball, you just set him until we go home.”
“For [Clark] to come out in his last match of his career and hit .465 is unbelievable,” Speraw added.
After the Trojans held a commanding 17-11 lead midway through the second set, the Anteaters battled back, demoralizing the Trojans. Clark ended a second straight set with a kill, putting UCI up 2-0.
Late in the third set, USC’s Tanner Jansen smacked one of his 10 kills to give the Trojans a 21-20 advantage, after having trailed a majority of the third set. But just when it looked like the Trojans might make it interesting, Ciarelli lined his final serve of his collegiate career into the net for a service error.
Tillie responded with back-to-back kills for Irvine. A McDonnell block tied the set at 24 apiece before Clark could make it match point with his 22nd and final kill of the evening. Then McDonnell stepped to the line, served up an ace and clinched the national title.
The win gives UCI athletics its fifth NCAA Division I title in school history. Since the turn of the century, just three schools have won multiple men’s volleyball national championships: UCLA (2), BYU (2) and UCI (3).
Speraw, the only individual in men’s volleyball history to win a national championship as a head coach, assistant coach and as a player, has led an Anteater squad to an unprecedented 132-57 (.698 win percentage) record since the start of the 2006-07 season, while featuring a schedule riddled with national title contenders.
Speculation has swirled for months as to whether or not this would be Speraw’s 10th and final season in Irvine before following in the footsteps of his idol and mentor, Al Scates. UCLA’s legendary head coach, Scates, is the John Wooden of volleyball. Scates has coached the Bruins to 19 national championships and more than an 80 percent win percentage in 50 seasons before retiring at the conclusion of this 2012 season. His final match was a four-set loss in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation quarterfinals at the hands of the ’Eaters and Speraw.
Speraw has remained mum. McDonnell and Clark won’t be back to suit up at the Bren Events Center next season as their graduation dates draw near, but they were more than willing to endorse their coach’s return for a fourth national title in 2013.
“I think Speraw at UCI works very well,” McDonnell said. “The players and staff love him. It’d be awesome to have him back next year.”
Speraw is now 16 titles away from his mentor’s 19 championships. With the season over, the attention will now shift to whether a UCLA alumnus, Speraw, will nurture his own dynasty in Irvine or walk in the shadows of Scates, an idol at UCLA.
“Who else wins three championships with three completely different teams in 10 years?” Clark said. “[Speraw] is definitely the best coach out there. I don’t know, I have no idea [if he will come back to UCI].”
Irvine finished the 2012 season 17-1 away from home, with their lone road loss coming at USC on April 7. Heading into the contest, the Anteaters led the Trojans by a narrow 7-6 margin in sets throughout the season before sweeping USC on Saturday night.
UCI bids farewell to perennial starters Clark and McDonnell, along with fellow seniors Kevin Carroll, Austin D’Amore and Alex Reis.
“We’ll have fun tonight and then I’m going to sleep; my knees are killing me,” Clark said before exiting the building. “‘Game of Thrones,’ I’ll watch ‘Game of Thrones’ tomorrow.”
With two national titles, four All-American nods, and a Most Outstanding Player honor at the NCAA Tournament, Clark has earned the right to slack off for a few days after four years of diligence.